The windstorms of success have started to blow in west London, with Chelsea and Fulham both on the up in 2021.
The close capital neighbours were collectively circling the drain over the festive period. But the turn of the year has heralded a new beginning. Thomas Tuchel has the Blues back into the top four and Scott Parker’s Fulham have given themselves a shot at safety.
Fulham, for their part, looked down and out just a few months ago, bloodied and bruised by the rigours of a return to the Premier League, with no sign of a comeback, no Houdini-esque escapologist in the dugout, no ‘Big Sam’ to save the day.
As it turns out, Fulham’s decision to stick rather than twist on the man who brought them up has proved successful. Not that there were ever any concrete suggestions Parker was walking the tightrope, but boardrooms have a tendency to jump the gun when in the doldrums of defeat. Just ask Slaven Bilic.
So, just how has Parker transformed the fortunes of his side? For starters, Alphonse Areola has backed up his super-club ties, coming to Fulham from Paris Saint-Germain to justify the hype through some sensational performances between the sticks.
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Likewise, Joachim Andersen traded Ligue 1 for Premier League football in the summer window and has been the cornerstone of a defensive resurgence. Meanwhile, Harrison Reed has manned the engine room with a irrepressible steel and grit, bringing bundles of energy to a once passive midfield.
However, arguably the pick of the bunch – and not just during this purple patch that has brought drama to the bottom of the table, but across the whole season – has been Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa. Once considered a busted flush when Fulham went down in his maiden campaign, he has returned with a point to prove. And he has certainly done just that.
Parker would have been naïve to ignore the exploits of Anguissa, who flourished on loan at Villarreal last season while Fulham slogged it out in the minefield of lower league football. Everyone loves a redemption story, and Anguissa has typified the narrative, putting paid to his disappointing first stint.
Statistically the Cameroonian has been a standout star for Fulham this season, but stylistically few can be said to hold a candle to Anguissa: he is the only Premier League player this season to register more than 50 tackles (58) and 50 completed take-ons (78); a repertoire of unrivalled versatility.
He is both Fulham’s chief dribbler and tackle specialist, taking on players with the same kind of zest and zeal with which he breaks up play. There is no creator-destroyer double-pivot needed at Fulham. Anguissa’s unique blend of skills brings meets both requirements.
More broadly, he is second only to Adama Traore (112) for most completed take-ons this season, outranking the likes of Jack Grealish, Marcus Rashford and Sadio Mane among others. Across Europe’s top five leagues, he is fifth overall. Currently topping the podium for completed take-ons this season are Traore, Lionel Messi (105), Javi Galan (88), Rodrigo de Paul (83) and then Anguissa. He is truly rubbing shoulders with the very best in the business.
However, this is no mere fluke, but rather, a pattern of Anguissa’s play in recent seasons.
During his year-long loan in La Liga last season, the then-Villarreal midfielder ranked third for most completed take-ons (85), with only Nabil Fekir (98) and Messi (182) racking up higher totals. He has taken that form with him back to Fulham, and they are reaping the rewards.
More recently, he completed 12 take-ons in the 1-0 win over Sheffield United, the most a player has completed in a single game across the entire Premier League season, underpinning his incredible influence on games when in full motion.
Parker made a bold tactical manoeuvre in the recent win over reigning champions Liverpool: keeping Anguissa on the bench for the full 90 minutes, the first time he has failed to get on the pitch this season. It paid dividends as Mario Lemina scored the winner, but Anguissa’s versatile tool kit could be exactly what is needed in this weekend’s contest against champions elect Man City.
Pep Guardiola elicited a reaction from his players after faltering in another Manchester derby, thrashing Southampton 5-2 in midweek, and Fulham must make sure they don’t endure a similar bruising. They have proven they can tussle with the very best this season, and in Anguissa, Parker has his Swiss army knife, someone who can shine in both phases of play (attack and defence).
City are expected to enjoy the lion’s share of possession and hog the ball, so Anguissa’s tackle-heavy exploits will be key to breaking them down and subduing their relentless threat. Meanwhile in possession, the 25-year-old’s excellent dribbling game will be key to getting them up the pitch and drawing out fouls to relieve pressure.
Guardiola sides are conditioned to dull opposition attacks by hook or by crook. Their rotational-tactical fouling well documented. This would be a bittersweet facet of Saturday’s game for Fulham. They may welcome the fouls as respite from the inevitable hoards of blue shirts swarming their box. On the other hand, their few ventures into opposition territory may be blunted by City’s covert rough-housing.
Either way, we are set for a fascinating battle between two sides who have exploded to life in 2021 and are currently duking it out at opposite ends of the spectrum.